Coming to the Breath

My relationship to the breath has been changing recently. I have a long- standing difficulty with practising the Mindfulness of Breathing. I would become tense and the mind would feel constricted as I focused on the breath and counted. For many years I worked with the quality of effort, trying not to force the attention. I also worked with trying not to control the breath which I found very difficult. There was regularly frustration upon noticing the attempts at control and I didn’t know what to do with that. There was also frustration and self-doubt that the mind so easily slid away from the breath and into thoughts and stories. So I left the breath alone and with it, ‘concentration’ practice.

I took up meditation practice where it didn’t matter what the object of attention was and where I didn’t need to stay with the same object over the course of a single practice. This was very helpful. I could have a much broader and more expansive experience of the breath within the whole body. So the breath would come and go amidst other body sensations, sounds and various mental states and activities of the mind. A major object was observing how the mind related to different experiences and in particular, spotting when there was craving in the mind; when ‘wanting’ was expressed through various expectations about what ‘should’ be happening in meditation, and by ‘trying’ – usually too hard!

Every now and again I would re-attempt to let the mind rest more with the breath. This was OK for a while but usually ended with some degree of tension and the feeling/thought “this is wrong”. Or “I’m doing it wrong.” I read a couple of meditation teachers whose opinions I really respected who seemed to say that, for some people, the breath was not a helpful object. There was too much habitual striving in the mind, or an unhelpful degree of narrowing down in the attempt to ‘focus’, usually done quite unconsciously. It turns out that knowing when you’re doing this kind of thing is quite difficult to spot and changing it, when it is a life long way of relating to self and world, almost impossible.

Over the past few years, though, it’s become more pleasurable and relaxing to come to the breath albeit for relatively short periods of time. Then something happened on a recent retreat that took things a bit further, though not in a way I might have anticipated.

In one particular sit I was with the breath in a very open way. Other objects, particularly body sensations were around but mainly I was watching the mind knowing the breath. And because I was watching the mind I started to see subtle conceptual formulations about the breath. I could also see how these constructs were creating a slight tension or friction like 2 things rubbing up against each other.

These mental constructs weren’t thoughts as such but a putting together of momentary fragments of thought/image/mental knowing. They were specifically concepts of ‘in & out’ breath and ‘up & down’ breath. The concepts were tied to sensations but the ideas didn’t fit the experience. Actually, the sensations connected with ‘breath’ don’t go up and down but appear in different parts of the chest, stomach, front and back ribs etc. In and out were similarly inaccurate in direct experience. The concepts or ideas were seen apart and unconnected from the sensations.

Once the concepts were seen for what they were the tension disappeared and the mind became very relaxed in knowing sensations and the concepts. It seemed like the concepts were unrecognised vestiges of concentration practice that were finally recognised by the clear seeing mind that had more of a perspective of clear seeing and insight.

It really doesn’t work trying to do 2 types of meditation at the same time!

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